February 5, 2021 | Feature
reaching for the radical
my unfinished exploration of the left
CONTENT WARNING: sexual assault
There’s a Twitter thread that pops up on my feed every once in a while that poses the essential question: “What radicalized you?”
Many responses recount the specific news story that shocked them to their core, a favorite eye-opening book they’d read, or a family member’s wise words. Personally, I can’t pinpoint the exact event that introduced me to radicalism; my journey was a lot messier, a lot more undefined, and it continues to this day. For such a monumental ideological change, I’ve been exploring it slowly.
I grew up surrounded by mainstream liberalism, in a Los Angeles suburb that transformed into a sea of Democratic lawn signs and bumper stickers every presidential election. Everyone was staunchly, proudly, undoubtedly liberal. Barack Obama was our lovable idol, CNN was our channel of choice, and everything from the media we consumed to the dinner table conversations we entertained glamorized liberalism and villainized conservatism. Entrenched in these Democratic beliefs, I grew increasingly comfortable perched in a seat of moral superiority, resolutely confident and self-satisfied with my political identity. From inside this echo chamber, it was easy to view the world in black and white: political parties as good and bad, politicians as heroes and enemies.
I wasn’t alone in claiming the moral high ground. Young liberals seem to flock toward any opportunity to validate and legitimize our own wokeness, which is enabled by the curated, performative nature of social media. In high school, many of us became more informed on current events and understood more deeply the significant role political ideology played in shaping our personal identities. I soon noticed how my peers remodeled their social media presences into conduits for performative activism. Also known as “slacktivism,” performative activism is “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.” It often lacks genuine support, focusing instead on the appearance of allyship as conveyed through online petitions, trending hashtags, and sensational photographs. I was continuously tagged to reshare and repost Instagram stories as proof of my wokeness. Performative activism was a liberal competition for social capital that everyone was obligated to compete in, lest they be judged by their peers as uninformed, unsympathetic, or, God forbid, “un-woke.”
There is genuine good that can be generated through social media. Authentic allyship is shown through promoting BIPOC voices and creators, sharing articles and critiques that offer new perspectives or information, and raising awareness for community fundraising projects. The use of Facebook and Twitter during the Arab Spring is a testament to how social media can be used to harness powerful social change: organizers mobilized through online channels, planning demonstrations, sharing information, and raising awareness.
While the Black Lives Matter movement has found a similar degree of success with online organization, performative activism has complicated things. There is evidence that it can be dangerously counterproductive and harmful: for example, #blackouttuesday, originally an initiative intended to disrupt the music industry by posting black squares in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, was co-opted by countless people eager to jump on the bandwagon and show their support. The initiative took a wrong turn when the unending flood of black squares began to drown out informative posts, the work of Black creators, and links to community funds. Similarly, during the Capitol riots, my feed was littered with short statements of condemnation (“This is disgusting!”) and not much more. The posts I genuinely valued—like news article screenshots with nuanced criticisms or breaking updates—were lost in a flood of empty, sometimes uninformed posts of performative activism.
After witnessing slacktivism’s potential for damage, I felt an urgent need to critically reconsider the effects of my actions and my online presence. I approached social media with caution, asking myself: Why am I sharing this? Whose voices am I uplifting? What does this add to the conversation?
I was moved to take Introduction to Ethnic Studies as my first class at Brown in order to escape this epistemic bubble of moderate Democratic thought and performative allyship. Professor Adrienne Keene marketed her class as a “sampler plate” of ethnic studies topics: a brief introduction into a wide variety of subjects like settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, intersectional feminism, and critical university studies. It was an offer to set out and take a bite, to taste the sickening pungency of the horrific, oppressive systems that plague every American institution and seep into the everyday lives of countless people, to venture beyond the mainstream liberalism I was so accustomed to.
The topics—white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism—were fascinating in the most twisted, sinister sense. Reading assignments sent me down rabbit holes of new, radical ideas. I confronted my immense privileges and sat with the fact that I was being introduced to these ideas in a classroom setting, rather than facing their physical consequences everyday. I considered, for the first time, how Brown University itself was implicated in systems of oppression, and what it meant to be a paying student at a land-grant institution built on occupied Indigenous land, a beneficiary of slavery and the slave trade, and an employer of a police force. I also felt hope as I was introduced to policy ideas that offered real, concrete solutions. Defunding the police and reallocating funds seemed like a necessary and achievable first step in combating police brutality; removing SAT requirements in college admissions seemed like a logical plan to begin decreasing educational inequality. These ideas just made sense to me.
But other ideas made me bristle with discomfort. Some were completely overwhelming.
I was most affected by our conversation on prison abolition, a concept I was familiar with but hadn’t fully explored. Prison abolitionists fight for the elimination of the prison industrial complex and “deep, structural reforms to how we handle and even think about crime.” For decades, mainstream politics have peddled carceral punishment as both necessary and beneficial—that in order to “fix” crime, we need to condemn and punish the individual, rather than heal and develop the environment and support systems around them (think “war on drugs” and “law and order”). In contrast, prison abolition is rooted in restorative justice: “a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.” Our class explored this idea through the story of Amy Biehl, whose parents reconciled with and grew close to the men who killed her. The story highlights the possible successes of restorative justice, when lawbreakers take responsibility to repair the hurt they’ve caused and communities work together to heal and grow.
My immediate reaction to this story was astonishment. I envy the family’s love, understanding, and commitment to healing. But I don’t know if I would be capable of doing the same.
As a survivor of sexual assault, resentment festers within me every time I’m encouraged to forgive. My case hasn’t been closed, and the person who harmed me, among others, has escaped to another country and remains unfound. My mind becomes awash with rage. I don’t want the onus to be placed on me to heal the person who hurt me—I want retribution. I want to see corrupt politicians and policemen face consequences for their actions. I want to see Donald Trump in jail.
Studies show that our minds are wired to crave the emotional release of revenge. When we exact revenge, neural activity shoots up, and we feel rewarded. But this effect is short-lived. Feelings of hostility return, and we lose ourselves in a continuous cycle of retaliation. While this human need for vengeance is natural and expected, it’s unhelpful for both the victim and the perpetrator. Vengeance does not lead to healing.
While I understand the merit and reasoning behind restorative justice and prison abolition, there remains an incongruence between my intellectual values and my immediate, overwhelming emotional reactions. Radical ideas usually interest and excite me. They offer worlds of possibilities, combating hatred and bigotry by instilling love and kindness into the community. They seek to go beyond incrementalist changes to the system; they want to dismantle the system itself.
Still, radicalism frustrates me.
It frustrates me that these ideas don’t immediately click with me, that I catch myself too often brushing up against emotional discomfort. After years of having my liberal values parroted by those around me, it was an uncomfortable shock to suddenly be not progressive enough. Having recently surrounded myself with radical voices, radicalism was beginning to feel like a moral destination, rather than a position among many ideologies. I placed radicals on a moral pedestal and longed to join them. As I consumed radical content, I sometimes found myself disheartened at my own discomfort and misunderstanding, other times shocked to find myself embittered with jealousy.
I’m jealous that radicals embody my same leftist values, but that they do so fully, unabashedly, and wholeheartedly. They see infinite possibilities for society and wholly recognize the substantial changes that need to happen for these values to materialize in our world, in our time.
Meanwhile, the chaos of the day-to-day often clouds my judgement, and radical ideas begin to feel like utopian dreams: fantastical and far from reach. It’s difficult to imagine a world without electoral politics when the presidential election headlines the news everyday, or a world without land-grant institutions when I am attending one myself. I feel powerless in the face of systems of oppression and inequality that have been built into the very foundation of our lives. And I’m angry—both enraged and horrified that what we’ve been handed is so inherently flawed that generation after generation has had to fight tooth and nail for justice, and that the road ahead seems long and never-ending.
So, what radicalized me?
I’m not a radical, at least not yet. But my introduction to these ideas and feelings is the first step. I’m trying not to position radicalism as the endpoint or goal of my journey, because I want to offer myself the freedom to fully explore my political identity without designating a destination. If I ever decide to claim this identity, I will do so proudly and authentically—not for the sake of being most “woke.”
It’s okay to be learning and growing. It’s okay to change your mind.
While I spent high school in a rush to align myself with progressivism, I’m now finding the space to truly explore these ideas. I’m moving beyond empty slacktivism and learning how to use the foundations of radical thought to question the world around me and to imagine new possibilities for the future. Radicalism has taught me to ponder my notion of self and my position in the world, to sit and evaluate my discomfort, to stand by my values, but always be open to change. And in the end, isn’t that what learning is all about?